Field trips to museums, historic sites and other traditional landmarks are occurring virtually these days.

Schools often rely more on online broadcasts and interactive programs because of budgets cuts and tight testing schedules. While in-person trips would be ideal, Nina Corley, a high-school history teacher in Galveston, Texas, says the electronic versions are great opportunities for students to interact with experts on location in such places as Colonial Williamsburg, Va. “They [students] are able to watch what’s going on, ask follow-up questions and play games all in one sitting. It really gets them involved,” Corley said.

In November, Corley’s students virtually explored the late 1700’s to learn about the French and Indian War. This month, they will be learning about 18th Century music while playing “Colonial Idol” through the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Emmy Award-Winning Electronic Field Trip Series.

After about two hours of virtual tours of the Virginia-based museum’s historical content, students are given the opportunity to ask questions of experts in a session brought to them by Colonial Williamsburg’s live dial-in service.

With tight testing requirements implemented by No Child Left Behind, budget cuts and the increased prominence of technology, school field trips are not what they used to be, school administrators say. Both national museums and school districts are adapting to the transformation .

For some, that means providing sophisticated digital experiences. For others, it means finding ways for physical trips to still make sense.

“Field trips are absoutely suffering,” said Mike Kaspar, Senior Policy Analyst at the National Education Association, “We are seeing it more and more, especially with the financial crisis and budget cuts. Students who need field trips the most aren’t getting them. To me, that’s the exact opposite of what needs to be happening.”

Neil Mulholland, President and CEO of the National Park Foundation, a national charitable partner to the National Park Service that supports America’s national parks, blames the decline of the “simple field trip” on lack of money.

“We have buses sitting in school yards all day long. There’s not enough money to pay for the driver, the chaperone, the bus that is sitting there to take the kids out into the field, making field trips a big challenge,” he said.

The solution, Mulholland says, is, “Providing that incremental funding to get kids out of the classroom and get them where they can experience what they’re learning.”

In an effort to execute this solution, the National Park Foundation created “Ticket to Ride” last October, a program that provides transportation and lunch for students to experience a field trip at one of the Foundations’ 400 parks for a lower cost. The program had a goal starting point of 100,000 kids and $250,000 allotted to the program. So far, it has brought roughly 40,000 students to their parks,Mulholland said..

“We are really proud of this model,” he said,”We are happy to get kids into the parks and in a setting where they can learn outside the classroom.”

Despite efforts like this, Mulholland said “the demand far outweighs what we have been able to do.”

“The teachers are reporting back that kids are so tethered to technology,” he said. “Play-based learning and experience-based learning are so important in this day and age, we want to do our best to keep that type of learning alive.”

The convenience and cost efficient benefits of virtual field trips are hard to deny, according to Corley, who is an advocate for the use of virtual field trips in her classroom.

Several museums have made lesson plans and tours available online, she said. The reason for virtual field trips, however, is not always directly linked to budget cuts, but also geographic barriers and the advanced nature of the Internet, according to Jim Bradley, Director of Communications at Colonial Williamsburg.

“An on-site field trip generally almost always has a very specific educational objective,” Bradley said. “The electronic field trips have a broader educational objective that has been tuned to satisfy universal standards of learning throughout all of the states, as opposed to a particular educational objective by one school that comes to visit us.”

Corley, who has 25 years of teaching experience, has been using Colonial Williamsburg’s electronic field trips in her classroom for more than a decade.

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